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DC Council (Finally) Resumes Discussion on the Comprehensive Plan

by Nena Perry-Brown

After years of public debate and development delays, the DC Council resumed consideration of amendments to the city's Comprehensive Plan on Tuesday — and the implications of passage remain unclear.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson released a revised draft of the “Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020" on Monday, an update to the 2006 Comp Plan that is meant to serve as a prescriptive guide for, among other things, planning, land use, and development in DC. Bodies like the Zoning Commission use the Comp Plan as a reference document to ensure their decision-making around zoning and development is compatible with the Plan's contents.

One of the primary points of concern for many councilmembers during Tuesday's bill mark-up was the lingering deficit of provisions that address racial equity, highlighted in a report released Monday by the Council Office of Racial Equity (CORE). The report stated that while the Comp Plan amendments were an improvement on the existing document as far as addressing racial equity, the amendments still don't go far enough in creating the conditions to disrupt the status quo. Over the past decade-plus, that status quo has been one of growing inequities and displacement of often long-term low-income, Black, and Latinx residents. A few councilmembers stated that the Plan wouldn't adequately address equity until it is rewritten entirely, a process that is seemingly just around the corner.

Councilmembers also expressed confusion about new language in the document that seemed unclear or contradictory. A concern raised by Councilmembers like Mary Cheh and Robert White was the revival of phrases like "respecting neighborhood character" in the current draft, previously excised in the draft circulated by the Mayor and the Office of Planning because of how these phrases are often applied to maintain exclusivity in low-density parts of the city. 

One of the newly-added portions of the Plan that seemed to encapsulate the concerns around racial equity and opacity is a section that states that before any zoning changes are made in the nine areas labelled for "Future Planning Analysis", additional planning resulting in vaguely-worded "guiding documents" (eg. studies, frameworks, etc.) must be completed. Those areas include the Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue corridors, and a swath covering both Foggy Bottom/West End and Georgetown, all parts of the city that are considered averse to development. 

The most prominent of the planning efforts listed under this section is the Small Area Plan, a typically lengthy process currently underway for a portion of the Connecticut Avenue corridor.

"Requiring a Small Area Plan for areas where you want increased density maintains the status quo for a period of time until the Small Area Plan is complete, and I know, having been in the District, we've never done a Small Area Plan in like, six months," Councilmember Christina Henderson remarked, asking for clarification.

The Chair noted that other means of planning — including the planned unit development processes that have provided a means of legal challenges for parties opposed — would also satisfy the requirement for additional planning, and later suggested that the Council can remove certain areas from that "Future Planning Analysis" designation. This was an insufficient response for some, however.

"Language matters," Councilmember Elissa Silverman said, reiterating the issues around phrasing throughout the existing Comp Plan that opened the door for exacerbating inequities. "If we don't do things differently than we've done in the past, we're going to get the same outcome, which is a racially inequitable city."

Chair Mendelson offered to meet with councilmembers in private to go over their concerns more thoroughly. Ultimately, however, the Chair agreed that the CORE analysis suggests that the only means of getting a Comp Plan that addresses racial equity in a meaningful way will be through rewriting it entirely.

The first reading of the Comp Plan amendment bill is scheduled for May 4th.

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/dc-council-finally-resumes-discussion-on-the-comprehensive-plan/18159

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